Imagine yourself as a high performing player through high school and a lower level NCAA program (possibly with a stop at a junior college in between). Imagine that coaches have told you throughout your career that you have something special in your game and you’ve heard American soccer pundits speculate that the best diamonds in the rough have not yet been uncovered.
Think of the deep U.S. Open Cup runs from amateur teams like Cal FC or Icon FC (the USASA predecessor of the ASL team), which earned several players professional contracts in the USL or the NASL including Danny Barrera and Danny Szetela. There is a widely held, and not entirely untrue, sentiment that there are dozens if not hundreds of players of the same potential caliber who have not yet been discovered. All these players need is an opportunity.
Imagine yourself as a standout at a lower collegiate program and either someone clues you into a local club touting itself as professional, or a self-proclaimed professional team is sending you offers after you’ve been rejected from USL tryouts. Would you say yes?
I was contacted a few months ago by a professional soccer player who wished to remain publicly anonymous, given the nature of the information he disclosed and his wish to continue playing in professionally organized leagues in this country, as did later sources. This unnamed source played in the ASL and witnessed firsthand the amateur character of the league, the apparent conflicts of interest within the league’s structure, and the duplicitous or even deceitful behavior by team and league officials.
The source grew up playing soccer on the East Coast and, after his successful collegiate career, he began to look at ways to fulfill his dream of playing professionally. The player utilized his network of personal contacts to set up tryouts for a handful of different teams in both the USL and ASL. Two teams in the ASL offered him a contract for the spring of 2015 and he decided out of geographic convenience.
While not at all unique to the ASL, the player expressed a strong belief that the structure of open tryouts veils a quick cash-grab behind the seductive allure of chasing a childhood dream. The league, teams, and coaches dangling the title of “professional soccer player” is a central theme of accounts of life in the ASL.
Another player, who joined Evergreen Diplomats ahead of the inaugural ASL campaign, told me about life with that team. When asked if the team played at the same venue for every game he replied, “No, of course not.”
“We started off at what was called like the PG County Sports and Learning Complex. It was a nice facility out in [Prince George’s] County. It had stadium style seating that sat like 7000 people. At our first game, again everything just seemed so legit, we had probably 1000 fans.”
“It was awesome. It was like something was really going on. After that, every game there was just less and less people. By the second half of the season, we were not there anymore. We were at Riverdale Baptist High School and then we played a game at like this, I don’t even know, this private church field one day. It didn’t make any sense. It was baffling at the time.”
The Evergreen player mentioned that the team had an online ticket sale mechanism but that it had quickly become outdated. “It was crazy because you would go on the website and buy the online tickets and it would say games were at PG County Sports Complex while we were really playing at this other facility and then this other facility.”
Similar to the downfall of Rhode Island Oceaneers, Evergreen Diplomats failed to properly plan the financial side of the operating a soccer team. The player mentioned there were near constant disagreements between the team’s coach and its general manager and owner, who was a player agent. I asked him what the topic of most of the arguments was. “It was money. Yeah, it was definitely money not coming from the owner.”
“We would ask the coach as players, What can we do?” This ranged from players being flexible with training times to attempting to personally arrange fields for the team to use. The team’s management never responded to offers from the players.
In terms of the operation of the organization and marketing the team, the Diplomats player saw missed opportunities everywhere he looked. “I was just a 20 year old kid who had a business associate’s degree, and it was still like, I could give you 100 different things you could market a million different ways, so much better than what you’re doing.”
The Evergreen player told me that there was a disconnect between the effort that players were expected to give and the effort they saw on the organization side of the club. As the spring season wore on, that perceived indifference from the owner had a strong effect on the players.
Another player who played with the Fury in 2014 criticized both his team’s and the league’s online presence “Their social media and their website were terrible. Just the way they presented it and how often they updated it and simple stuff like that. It’s not good. It’s not near a high standard at all.”
I asked him if he knew what place his team was in during the ASL season. “No, we had no clue because the website was never updated and we never knew other teams’ results either. It was kind of hard to have an idea of where you were in the table when you don’t know, really, even your own record. It’s not good. I never knew where we stood in the table or anything like that.”
The player from Evergreen had strong words for the social media presence of the ASL, as well. “They had some social media in the beginning. They had social media pages but they weren’t any more popular than a personal account. Any random high school kid has more followers than all of the teams.”
He credited the large turnout at the Diplomat’s first game to the players themselves.”I was local and everyone from my family came out. Tons of friends came out. All the kids I coached came out. We got a dollar for every ticket we sold, which is stupid and absurd – So when somebody walks in, someone would ask who they’re there to see. Now fortunately, they didn’t give us tickets to go sell them door to door. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, like when we did soccer fundraisers in high school selling raffle tickets. It was still pretty comical that if you can imagine Michael Bradley getting a dollar from every family member who has come to a game.”
“I think in a lot of ways the first game was overall players were thinking that it was all right. And there was buzz. I think people came out thinking, Oh I want to see what it is. But there was no way to follow that up. There was no place on the website to see our stats. Where’s our write-ups? Where’s the social media? What are we doing? Where’s our venues? Just simple stuff like that.”
The Diplomats player went on about the rampant unprofessionalism of the team’s General Manager Bob Bowman. “I have no problem calling him out because I did not get paid for the last 4 games of my season. None of us got paid for the last four games.”
With the ASL split season, 4 games made up a large chunk of the 2015 spring campaign, which ended in acrimonious circumstances for Evergreen. “There were like 10 games each half season. Or it was supposed to be, I think it ended up being like 18 total or something. Because of Ironbound getting booted. We won like four games off forfeits because of illegal players on the other teams.” He joked, “Basically all our points were from that.”
The player told me that neither the general manager nor the owner of Evergreen Diplomats ever told the players that the team would not continue operating after the end of the spring 2015 season.
“This is great,” the player began with a sardonic laugh. “We were never told directly by anyone. None of us got paid for the last 4 games of the season. We were reaching out to our owner; our owner never answers anything. He only would call you if he needed something. He never reached out to us, nothing. And then finally, we heard something from the coach probably like two months later.”
“I found out from a personal conversation with the coach that the team didn’t exist. I had players talking to me recently, like is Evergreen is still coming back? Everybody had their own story about how they heard. Oh I heard like four months ago, or I heard two weeks ago from this person or that person. Until the ASL made an announcement, way into the fall [of 2015], saying that we were on a hiatus, there was never any official press release. They never reached out to any players, nothing.”
“None of us got any player releases. I only got one because I was playing on a summer team and I hounded him and happened to run into [Bowman] so he sent me one. No one really got official releases either. If you wanted to go to another club right away, that was all tied up.”
When asked if all of the players on Evergreen during the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015 were registered with the federation as professionals, the player referred to the same cloud of confusion that hung over much of the Evergreen Diplomats organization.
“I don’t even know to be honest. In the spring season, just to show you how dysfunctional it was I don’t even really know if I had professional status during that time.”
“I can say this,” he continued, “I know like 90% of our players were playing in local Sunday leagues where people throw you money under the table. It got so bad that we had to have a meeting in the spring where the management said if they found out that we were playing anywhere they’d cut us. But you could go up to a local soccer facility, you would probably find like 2 or 3 of us there all the time.”
The Evergreen Diplomats, unlike many teams in the ASL, offered players fairly lucrative contracts. However this financial commitment initially prevented the necessary investment in training facilities or a regular venue before ultimately proving too costly to honor. The ownership and management of Evergreen broke the contracts they signed with their players and the league had no system in place to compensate players or assist with reinstating their amateur statuses.
Not every player harbored negative feelings about their time in the American Soccer League, another former Fury player seemed grateful to Fury Head Coach and ASL CEO Matt Driver for the opportunity.
“He kept my career going because I probably wouldn’t have played if it wasn’t for that. The PDL was in its last month by the time I got back [to the country] so it was pointless to even go into PDL at that point. There was nothing else to really sign for. Of all the USL and NASL teams, I contacted a few of them and they were like, No, we’re full, thanks.”
This player had been pursuing options overseas and returned in the early fall of 2014. “It was a lifeline for me, honestly, to continue playing. I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity, I’m thankful I got to play that fall.”
But even this appreciative player had strong doubts about the league. “I was expecting a lot more than what it was. Although it was the league’s first season, I expected more from the competition.” He explained, “I think the league as a whole is a good idea but there are definitely things that need to be changed.”
“I liked the idea of getting paid to play soccer,” he told me. “And I think it’s definitely a good way for players to continue playing, especially players who are in a similar situation to my situation. Other than that, it has a lot of work to do if it wants to become an actual sanctioned professional league; which it’s not.”
After the initial fall season, this player personally contacted several USL teams. After a few unsuccessful tryouts and training camps, he caught on with a professional team. The Fury never helped him move on to a higher level and instead actively tried to convince him to return to the ASL after his contract ended.
The player who suited up for the Fury in the spring of 2015, who initially reached out to me, laughed when I asked him to compare the ASL to his college team. “In college we were treated like professionals. We were fed, we were given all the equipment to wear. The soccer balls were great. The coaching was great. The atmosphere was sick. The stands were always packed. I was lucky, we traveled in one big coach bus to away games.”
He had earlier explained to me how a group of players on the Fury that season had pooled together their own money to buy matching dry-fit tops from a sporting goods store so they would look more legitimate on public fields where they practiced. The team did not provide training kits or any other equipment despite numerous requests from the players.
“The quality in college was so much better on gamedays with preparation and everything, team dinners,” he told me. “[With the Fury] I guess a couple times we were handed $10 and told that it was for food or for gas if we had to meet somewhere. It was definitely not ideal.”
The player who played with the Fury in the fall of 2014, also commented on the travel and accommodations in the ASL. “When we traveled up to Rhode Island, the game was at 6:00 PM and we left the Philly area at 6:00 AM. We took two white vans and crammed everybody in. All we had to eat the whole day was a 6-inch sub, so there was no real meal before the game and we largely had to use our own money.”
This player compared the conditions of his small Division I program and the USL to those in the ASL. Both while in college and in the USL, his teams stayed overnight when they traveled far on the road. The USL team provides sleeper buses where each player has his own bunk and the college team would take a coach bus to all of its road games. The Fury used two eight-seater vans and fit as many as twelve people in each one. “It was probably the least comfortable car I’ve ever ridden in.” The player added, “This seemed like a recurring thing in the league.”
“I lived in team housing with them. With [USL team], everybody gets their own bedroom and it’s either one, two, or three per apartment. In the Fury, we were all in the same apartment complex but it was four players to a two bedroom place and it was very tight.”
“The bedrooms were probably as big, or even smaller actually, than most freshman college dorms. There was nowhere to put your clothes. The mattresses were just laid on the floor. There was one bathroom for four people. The kitchen was very tiny. It just wasn’t very good, it wasn’t ideal living situation at all for anybody.”
Of the four players mentioned in this story, one is playing in a professional league, one of them is in the NPSL, another is in the PDL, while the fourth has focused on his youth coaching career. Pieces of their stories are not necessarily uncommon at the unofficial fourth tier or the amateur open division level of American soccer, but these players all felt disillusioned or deceived by the failure of the ASL’s teams to live up to their billings.
The complaints of training conditions, travel arrangements, housing accommodations, media presence, and unpaid compensation don’t tell the whole story of playing in the ASL but offer a tantalizing glimpse of life at the fringes of American soccer.